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A Fisherman's Wharf for Locals, Too

Fisherman's Wharf as seen from the Hyde Street Pier
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Fisherman's Wharf as seen from the Hyde Street Pier
 
The city and merchants have finally agreed on an extensive makeover plan

Dean Macris, San Francisco’s former planning director, delivered a blunt message to Fisherman’s Wharf’s powerful restaurant owners last year: Accept the city’s plan to overhaul the wharf or risk being left behind.

During a meeting at Alioto’s Restaurant, Macris, a longtime power broker who advises the city on major projects, described the city’s $15 million plan as a last-ditch effort to turn the fabled wharf into a destination not only for tourists but also for San Franciscans who have shunned the area for years. If the plan was not approved, he told the crowd, Fisherman’s Wharf faced “a long slide downhill,” Macris recalled in an interview.

The restaurant owners, including some of San Francisco’s oldest and most influential families, say they have gotten the message.

After decades of divisiveness and inaction, during which Fisherman’s Wharf deteriorated from a vibrant fishing center into a hodgepodge of shops selling sunglasses and T-shirts, city officials and business owners have agreed on a plan to create a five-block esplanade with stone streets, outdoor cafes and sweeping views of the bay.

“The merchants realize now that it’s time to make the area more pedestrian-, bike- and public-friendly; that’s what this is all about,” said Nunzio Alioto, owner of Alioto’s Restaurant and a cousin of former Mayor Joseph Alioto.

By the time the project is completed, Alioto promised, the Bay Area will have a new opinion of Fisherman’s Wharf. “Instead of hearing, ‘Oh, it’s the wharf,’ we’ll hear people walking our streets and admiring the wharf as one of the world’s most beautiful ports,” he said.

Financing has not been completed, but city officials say the proposal is the best chance yet to achieve a long-needed makeover, which has repeatedly stalled over the inability of the district’s strong-willed business community to agree on a plan.

“The stars have lined up this time,” said Aaron Peskin, the former Board of Supervisors president who has pushed the wharf project.

Two factors — a younger generation of leaders in the wharf community and pressure from city planners — helped build support, Peskin said.

“Fisherman’s Wharf is the goose that lays the golden egg day in and day out for the city,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves to bring the wharf into the 21st century.”

Despite its tacky appearance, Fisherman’s Wharf ranks as the No. 8 tourist attraction in the United States, with 10 million visitors annually, according to a Forbes.com survey. But the wharf of today gives little hint of its glorious past. Built on rubble from the 1906 earthquake, the district for decades was home to a thriving fishing industry that employed thousands of fishermen, many of them Sicilian.

“It was wall-to-wall Italians,” said Lou Marcelli, 82, who came to San Francisco in 1943 and worked for years as a herring fisherman. “The wharf was alive. There’d be groups of fishermen everywhere, talking together, reminiscing, mending nets.”

A souvenir shop at Fisherman's Wharf on Sunday, Nov 21, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
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A souvenir shop at Fisherman's Wharf on Sunday, Nov 21, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen

As time passed, the fisheries dwindled and regulations limiting catch size increased. Many fishermen moved north. Restaurants like Alioto’s are still a major draw, but little more than a few dozen families still fish out of the harbor, according to Larry Collins, president of the Crab Boat Owners Association.

Collins said a key step toward making the area more vital would be creation of a seafood center where fishermen could sell their catch directly to the public. He said he was working to find financing for such a center.

But much more must change if the area is to become a world-class destination, city planners say. It is all but impossible to locate the wharf’s geographic heart or sense its rich history, they say, noting that visitors must contend with packed sidewalks and have few places where they can pause to take in the picturesque vistas.

Under the city’s plan, sidewalks along Jefferson Street would be widened. Electronic signs would direct motorists to available parking. Cars would be allowed, but only at low speeds. Views would be improved by widening the area overlooking the harbor next to Jefferson Street.

“The most important part of our redesign is that we are creating a space that caters to the needs of pedestrians — their comfort, their safety, their ability to appreciate the beauty of the area and its connection to the water,” said Neil Hrushowy, the city’s lead urban planner on the project.

Many plans for remaking the wharf area have been proposed, only to die amid bitter wrangling over issues like traffic. But as places like the Ferry Building have been redeveloped, drawing large crowds, wharf leaders determined that revitalization could not be put off any longer.

Andrea Daly, center, takes a picture of Kara Daly at Fisherman's Wharf on Sunday, Nov 21, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
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Andrea Daly, center, takes a picture of Kara Daly at Fisherman's Wharf on Sunday, Nov 21, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen

In 2007, the wharf’s newly formed Community Benefit District, composed of 181 businesses, approached the city to pledge support for such a plan.

This time, the city went all out to accomplish what had not been done before, going so far as to set up an office at the wharf. Hrushowy worked out of that office, conducting workshops for local organizations and residents “so I could understand what the local merchants needed and how people used the area,” he said.

“The community was exceptionally skeptical of a planner from downtown coming in and telling them what to do,” Hrushowy said. “The city recognized the only way forward was to gain their trust, and that meant spending an extraordinary amount of time there, meeting with as many people as possible to learn how they wanted the wharf to evolve.”

In 2008, the city hired Gehl Architects, a Copenhagen firm that specializes in remaking city centers, to produce a report on the wharf. That report included a vision that significantly reduced vehicular traffic and created a broad plaza that would serve as the heart of the wharf.

“From a design point of view, we said we were creating shared street space where cars are allowed but typically go 10 miles per hour,” Hrushowy said. “You are saying that cars are visitors in the space, and the pedestrians are the focus for the street.”

 As the plan was negotiated, there were flashes of the old tensions.

Chris Johnson, area manager for the Radisson Fisherman’s Wharf, said he won a two-block addition to the planned Jefferson Street promenade after promising to fight the plan “tooth and nail” if the roadway did not extend in front of his hotel.

But the consensus seems to have held. If the plan receives the financing and approvals that are still needed, merchants say, the wharf will attract a higher grade of shops and more visitors, including skeptical San Franciscans.

“We want San Franciscans to come to feel a pride in the wharf,” said Rodney Fong, owner of the popular Wax Museum and one of the plan’s backers, “and we know if Fisherman’s Wharf doesn’t refresh itself, we’ll be behind the times and wonder what happened.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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